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Journal Issue: Special Education for Students with Disabilities Volume 6 Number 1 Spring 1996

CHILD INDICATORS: Children in Special Education
Eugene M. Lewit Linda Schuurmann Baker

Data on Special Education

Most nationally representative information on identification and classification in special education comes from administrative data collected by the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) in the United States Department of Education. Data are collected as part of the requirement under the federal formula grant programs for special education. Until late in 1994, the two major formula grant programs related to special education—the Part B State Grant Program under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, Public Law 94-142) and Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—were administered separately. As a result, until 1995 federal data on participation in special education were collected in two separate streams, and the data were combined each year in a report to Congress.2

Children in special education, as represented by OSEP data, are those who have individualized education programs (IEPs) and participate in special education programs designated for the disabled under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). However, the OSEP data do not include children served in Title 1 compensatory education programs for the disadvantaged or those nondisabled low achievers receiving remedial education. Moreover, the data do not include all disabled children because some children who are found to be disabled are determined not to be in need of special education services.3

Federal special education legislation (including the IDEA and ESEA) requires that each state educational agency conduct an annual count of the number of children served on December 1 of each year and send the results to the Office of Special Education Programs.4 Each state collects the data to satisfy this reporting requirement in its own way—Hawaii, for example, routinely keeps information on all children in special education at the state level, while other states receive summary reports from individual school districts or schools. The summary reports generally include the number of children served, broken down by disability category (with the exception of preschool-age children),5 educational setting, and other related variables. Because federal grants for the following year are allotted based on the count of the number of children in special education programs, states are motivated to count each child who is receiving services. However, the details of the OSEP counts, such as the number of children with specific disabilities discussed below, are not tied to federal funding so reporting is likely to be less consistent across states.6

Each year, states are asked to report the number of children identified in each of the 13 IDEA disability categories and receiving special education services. These categories represent the disabled children who are entitled to special education under the IDEA. The 13 categories are:

  1. Specific learning disability
  2. Speech or language impairment
  3. Mental retardation
  4. Serious emotional disturbance
  5. Multiple disabilities
  6. Hearing impairment
  7. Deafness
  8. Orthopedic impairment
  9. Other health impairment
  10. Visual impairment or blindness
  11. Autism
  12. Traumatic brain injury
  13. Deaf-blindness

OSEP provides disability classifications to be used in reporting and in determining eligibility for services. However, federal legislation does not require the use of standard disability categories in states' internal operations, and there are variations in the operational definitions of disability categories used by states.7 Massachusetts, for example, does not collect data on which children fall into which disability category because the state uses only a single category for all children with disabilities. The state, however, provides OSEP with estimates for the proportion of children in special education by disability category.6 Most states use the federal categories only to determine eligibility and use other criteria (such as measurements of the child's level of functioning in a classroom setting) to determine which services a child receives. Reporting of children in the disability categories may also be inconsistent because of state level financial incentives. Some states provide different amounts of funding to school districts for children in different disability categories.8 This practice provides the school districts with an incentive to classify children in higher yield groups.